Saturday, 16 June 2012

England 3 Sweden 2 Euro 2012 Match Report

         Not since 1968 had England beaten Sweden in a competitive game. Sadly, in the intervening forty odd years the Swedes had not been as generous, breezily beating England on a number of occasions - most gallingly when Thomas Brolin twirled like a tubby Scandanavian dervish after consigning England to a comprehensive defeat in Euro 1992. Following this setback The Sun gleefully placed a turnip on Graham Taylor's head. And it became an iron law of football that no England manager can recover from being depicted beneath a root vegetable.
     Roy Hodgson was doubtless aware of that Fleet Street's finest had their photoshops primed and ready for action so defeat was not an option especially with newly sacked 'Arry ready to wind down his car window to tell any passing hack he was available and ready to take the FA's money all the way to Monaco and forget about it if asked. Indeed the general feeling was England really needed to win this game to avoid, if possible, having to defeat the Ukraine in front of their own crowd for a place in the last eight.
       Hodgson therefore had decided to tinker with his tactics and his line-up. Patrice Evra had remarked after the France game that England had played like Chelsea and he made a fair point. England's two narrow disciplined lines denying Ribery et al any hint of space was reminiscent of Chelsea long rearguard action in the Nou Camp which eventually saw them reach the Champions League Final. Unfortunately, while England can seemingly manage the tight defensive banks of four, where the Chelsea model falls down is the absence of any striker anywhere near as potent as Didier Drogba - Wellbeck was peripheral against France and Young's influence was at best sporadic.
       The obvious solution to this attacking conundrum was currently spending the tournament experimenting with ever more ludicrous hairstyles, having kicked himself out of contention in Montenegro and so Hodgson was forced to turn to Andy Carroll – a man who has already demonstrated that he is more than Rooney's match when it comes to silly haircuts. Sadly, this is the only area in which he is Rooney's match. There have, in some quarters, been an attempt to rehabilitate Carroll after a couple of non-terrible performances towards the end of the season but he remains as far from an international class striker as a minority of the Ukraine's fans do from running one day training courses on the value of diversity in the workplace.
        Carroll started “enthusiastically” clattering two Swedes within three or four minutes. Guy Mowbray told Mark Lawrenson how pleased he was to see it. We all like the commentators to be patriotic but praising England's fouls is a little too zealous.
        Soon the game settled down to a bit of a shapeless stodge familiar to all regular England watchers. Neither team was allowing the other any space and both teams lacked the guile to create much. But slowly England began to impose themselves a little. Scott Parker hit a stinging shot from the edge of the penalty area which the Swedish keeper did well to palm away.
     Nevertheless although England were marginally better there was no suggestion that they were on the point of making a breakthrough. However, an intervention from Gerrard was to change all that. Picking the ball up in the middle of the Swedish half he allowed himself a swift look and curled in a perfect cross. Carroll met it with an equally good header. 1 – 0 England. I looked back three paragraphs and felt my potential career as a incisive football pundit slipping away.
      In truth that was the only moment of real quality in the entire half. England failed to build on their lead and as the interval approached Sweden were beginning to exert a little pressure themselves. However, as the players left the pitch at half-time the feeling in my living room was that England were looking solid and would be able to see out the game.

         My potential career as a football pundit took another knock when Sweden  equalised within three minutes of the re-start. Carroll who seems to be alllowed to wander out of position more than is wise turned up in front of his own penalty area to give away a needless free kick. So determined was he to do it that he kicked the Swede twice. The resulting free kick from Ibrahimovic ricocheted to Olaf Mellberg unmarked in the penalty area. He beat Joe Hart and though Glen Johnson made a desperate attempt at a goal line clearance the ball flew in off the post.
          Five minutes later, the Swedes were in the lead. Knowing their opponents were reputed to be weak in the air England generously decided not to mark them at all at a dangerous free kick. Oleg Mellberg did not spurn the open invitation. Sweden 2 England 1. If England kept defending like this you felt Olaf could have the Golden Boot wrapped up by full time. Fleeting images of opposing fans taunting Cristiano Ronaldo with cries of “Melberg! Melberg! Melberg!” when he next missed a sitter flashed through my mind. Admittedly, I had been drinking.
           But I, at least, knew the rest of my football punditry was going to be easy. England never fight back from situations like this. They huff and puff and hoof to no avail. The hopeless nature of the cause was confirmed by the immediate introduction of Theo Walcott. If anybody was guaranteed to lead England down a hopeless cul-de-sac it was him.
         The world began to stop making sense when Walcott scored almost instantly with a shot from outside the area. Admittedly the Swedish goalkeeper's attempt to save his effort was so weak that it would have sparked a match fixing scandal had he been Italian.
        I had barely had time to check that I hadn't slipped through a portal into an alternative universe when Walcott charged through the Swedish defence again. His cross was behind Wellbeck but the Manchester United striker somehow manufactured a delicate reverse clipped backheel straight into the bottom left hand corner of the net. I decided football punditry was harder than it looked.
        The remainder of the match was incredibly tense. Well, I say that. It was probably incredibly tense for those of you who didn't have your sister-in-law appear uninvited to watch the last ten minutes with you. I bet Lineker and Hansen don't have to put up with listening to someone tell you in detail how “hot” they think Glen Johnson is when trying to compose their post-match analysis.
      But “hot” or not, Johnson had an excellent game. As did Gerard. As did Carroll. As did Walcott. The only thing that didn't have an excellent game was my self-appointed punditry. Oh and Ashley Young who was shocking. But when England are beating Sweden for the first time since 1968 I am prepared to let it go.

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